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The Siberian Towns Where The USSR Buried Toxic Waste

Article illustrative image Partner logo A toxic storm is brewing over Siberia

TEGOULDET - It takes a lot to unsettle the inhabitants of Tegouldet, a village of 3,000 southwest of Tomsk in Siberia. Their daily routine consists mainly of hunting, fishing and growing vegetables, except during the cold, six-months-long winter, when their only leisure activity is ice-fishing.

Nothing seems to trouble Alexei, a retired FSB (ex-KGB) officer. Not even the earth mound overlooking his house. Twenty tons of DDT, a highly toxic pesticide, are buried there, right between the village and the Chulym river.

Back in the 1970s, when the zone was uninhabited, local authorities believed that Tegouldet was the perfect spot to bury their stocks of unused pesticides. After producing very large amounts of DDT (doust in Russian) in the 1950s and 1960s, the USSR was forced to ban the substance a decade later when its negative impact on the environment was finally revealed.

What to do with the enormous stocks of pesticides accumulated over the years? Burying them was the ideal solution – cheap and easy. And Siberia is huge. The region of Tomsk, for instance, is nearly as big as Germany, with a surface of 316,000 square kilometers (122,000 square miles). And these vast forested lands, full of gas and peat, are very sparsely populated (3.3/km²).

Over the years, families settled around Tegouldet's earth mound. The area was appealing, close to the river and the village. The newcomers built small wooden houses with gray tin roofs. Every settler chose a small piece of land to grow potatoes and cabbage.

That is when the problems started. "People started to get headaches and nausea. We had to do something. Local authorities brought a dozen tons of sand to cover the buried pesticides even more. People moved their vegetable gardens farther away. People stopped complaining, but there is no denying that the ground and the river are both contaminated," explains Piotr Tchernogrivov, president of the Green Party for the Tomsk region.

"People are healthy around here. Look at Natasha, Alexei's wife. When she sits down she takes up half the sofa," says Gennadi Savelyevich, an official from the Ministry for Emergency Situations. This pollution and radiation expert wants to "pass on a clean earth" to the next generation. Or so the nature-loving expert says as he toasts his fellow bear-hunters in their cabin, not far from the village.

Tegouldet is not an isolated case. Nearly 250,000 metric tons (275,578 tons) of pesticides and agricultural chemicals were abandoned in old warehouses, buried underground, or left in the open all over the USSR. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the authorities stopped monitoring where things were. Today, no one knows precisely where these poisons were stored or buried.

Worse than nuclear waste

For Piotr, because of the lack of transparency surrounding them, these stocks could be more dangerous than nuclear waste. In the case of the uranium that continues to be brought from France to be treated in Sveresk, one of Russia's “closed” nuclear cities, the process is monitored, unlike unregistered pesticides.

Piotr wants these toxic agricultural products to be stored at the "pilot polygon," a 38-hectare (94-acre) chemical combine near Tomsk, 60% owned and fully funded by the Russian state. Piotr is the deputy director of the facility, which has been used to store dozens of tons of waste in secure warehouses since 1992. It also receives waste from the neighboring regions of Kemerovo, Omsk, and Tuva.

"Many people criticize this aspect of the polygon. They don't understand why Tomsk needs to take care of other regions' waste," says Pavel Gagarin, an expert from the local agriculture-monitoring department. "People here don't believe the situation is dangerous unless they are affected directly. This is how, for instance, a local food engineer painted his house with Granozan, a highly toxic pesticide full of mercury, because he loved its purple color."

Regional authorities have begun to react. Under Piotr Chernogrivov's orders, teams were formed to list pesticide storage sites, find their owners, and secure their access.

In August 2011, Russia ratified the Stockholm Convention, which aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants. The Green Cross, an environmental NGO created by former USSR head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, offered to help.

"Providing safe storage for waste is good, but we need to cover it up again every year. Exporting waste is too expensive. The solution would be to destroy it all, but we need an incinerator for that and we can't afford it," explains Green Cross expert Stephan Robinson, a specialist in post-Soviet environmental issues. "Our first concern is to index every storage site."

A team of three young environmentalists, Piotr, Gennadi, Pavel and Green Cross officials, is on its way to former kolkhoz farmland near Pervomayskaya, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Tomsk. Narrow roads full of potholes make the trip difficult. After a drive of several hours, the team is ready to get to work. They put on white jumpsuits, boots and masks.

You can spot the disgusting smell of the nearby granozan dump from miles away. The pesticide was dumped there a year ago and the warehouse is extremely polluted. Experts are taking samples. The building will have to be leveled. The pesticides will be transferred to the polygon.

A man walks by. He is bringing his cows to the shed and pays no attention to the jumpsuit-wearing team. Another man, with his coat unzipped in the cold Siberian wind (-10°C) is cheerful. "For Christ’s sake, we have not seen this around here for years. All dressed in white, that's cool! But who are you? You must be members of the anti-riot police..."

Vadim, Svetlana and Mila, the young environmentalists from the team, want their region to be clean. They dream of seeing foreign investors, tourists, and-- why not-- bear-hunters, thronging to Tomsk. At the local bear-hunters’ cabin, the walls are covered with trophies. "Don't worry, there are still plenty," says Piotr.

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